Senior mentors share knowledge, faith

WASHINGTON (CNS) - As a whole, older Americans have the time to volunteer and want to do it, particularly if it involves sharing their wisdom by mentoring.

What holds them back, according to an AARP study, is that they are often not asked to help.

According to the organization's 2008 study on giving, most Americans ages 44-79 reported doing some type of volunteer work in the previous year, and 41 percent, representing 45 million people, said they were likely to increase the time they spent volunteering during the next five years.

They said they tend to get involved out of a desire to help people in need. Their service is primarily through faith-based or religious groups and most often involves mentoring or tutoring young people or helping the elderly live independently.

Of this same group, 68 percent of non-volunteers said they had not been asked to help, which supports previous research showing that when people are asked to help, more than eight in 10 Americans will do so.

Sister Sharon Stecker, a School Sister of Notre Dame, who directs a tutoring program in Milwaukee called Rising Stars, said half of the group's volunteers are retirees who hear about the program through church bulletin announcements, posts at local senior centers and word of mouth.

"I find they really enjoy doing it and feel they are doing something to help," she told Catholic News Service. "It's a special outlet for them, and often they say they get as much or more out of it as the children do."

The program's volunteers, who range in age from 18-80, help students who are falling behind in school.

Sister Sharon, a former teacher in Catholic schools and religious and adult education programs, not only coordinates Rising Stars but also tutors some of the middle school students through it. At 67, she also falls into the retiree age group, but since she devotes 25-30 hours a week to the program, she is hardly retired. She also is hardly near retirement age in this business, since the program's former director retired last year at age 80.

Sister Sharon views the tutoring program as a ministry that continues the education mission of her order and is pleased that the volunteers can have "a nice rapport with the children," especially those who might not have a good self-image.

"When a 5- or 6-year-old says, 'I'm dumb,' it can be hard for them to move on. We help them feel good about themselves," she said.

Senior mentors are not always called on to teach basic school subjects; they also might be called on to teach about church tradition and beliefs.

At Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Plymouth, Mich., for example, Darlene and Ed Rinke, a retired couple, said it was only natural for them to want to help others entering the church.

In 2014, the couple helped instruct more than 50 people in the parish's Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program.

Ed said their group involves both catechumens - who are not baptized - as well as candidates, who are baptized but may not have been raised in the church or received first Eucharist or confirmation.

From guiding the RCIA participants in learning about the seven sacraments to understanding who Jesus is to helping them develop a relationship with Jesus, the Rinkes say they have grown to appreciate Catholicism more.

"Just hearing everyone's stories," said Darlene. "When you see how they're struggling and desiring this, and when you see them meet Jesus, it makes your faith grow stronger."

Her husband agreed: "Their stories of how they came into wanting to know more about the Catholic faith has always been a pleasant surprise."

He also said it piques the couple's interest in the Catholic faith "because sometimes there are questions posed to us that we may not have the answers to."

"It really is a faith-stimulating activity," he said.

Patti and Phil Michaelson, also senior parishioners helping in the parish RCIA program, said they were approached in 2013 about volunteering.

Patti said helping with the course was a significant time commitment but worth it.

She and her husband both felt their service spurred on their own faith.

"You can't talk to other people about your faith if you don't know what you're talking about," Phil said.

And they both said they have been inspired by Pope Francis.

"This is just the beginning of an incredible walk with Our Lord," said Patti.

Contributing to this report was Elizabeth Wong Barnstead in Detroit.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015